Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 10 (KJV)
Freedom from Expectations
Devotional Reading: Acts 17:22–34
Background Scripture: Acts 15:1–21
1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.—Acts 15:8–9
God’s Law Is Love
Unit 3: Christ Frees, Law Enslaves
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. Summarize the viewpoint disputed by Paul and Barnabas.
2. Outline Peter’s refutation of that viewpoint.
3. Describe how he or she will interrogate personal practices based on what is core to the gospel message.
How to Say It
Theophilus Thee-ahf-ih-luss (th as in thin).
- Steps to Resolve Disputes
Conflict management is not a new practice. Sometimes people resolve conflict through conversation, debate, and allowances. Resorting to stonewalling, avoidance, or even advancing the conflict to a court of law can do little to reconcile those who find themselves in dispute.
One method (of many) to resolve conflict involves three steps. First, the parties in dispute are to be identified. Second, both sides must clearly understand the nature of their conflict. Third, the involved parties’ shared values or common ground should be recognized. When mediators address these steps, an agreement that serves the interests of all conflicting parties can be reached.
Today’s Scripture involves a conflict between parties of the first-century church. The Christian movement was just beginning, and believers had to work out conflicting perspectives on certain doctrines. The resolution in Acts 15 sets an important precedent for the church and the identity of the people of God.
- Lesson Context: First-Century Judaism
Most of Jesus’ earliest followers were Jewish, and they still participated in many of the practices of Judaism. For example, until the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70, Jewish followers of Jesus participated in some of the temple’s ceremonies (examples: Acts 3:1; 21:26). Additionally, throughout the Roman Empire, Jewish believers continued to participate in the synagogues (example: 17:1–2). Jews gathered in these buildings for worship and teaching from the Scriptures.
Some Gentiles had become highly regarded within their local Jewish communities, partly because of their support of synagogues (example: Luke 7:1–10). The book of Acts mentions one such individual: Cornelius, a Gentile who “feared God” (Acts 10:1–2, 22). There is no indication that these Gentiles took up the requirements of Judaism. As a result, they were not considered “children of the stock of Abraham” (13:26).
There were, however, some Gentiles who chose to convert fully to Judaism. These converts were called “proselytes” (see Acts 13:43; compare 6:5). Male proselytes were required to be circumcised—a painful, even dangerous, surgical procedure in the days of rudimentary anesthetics and no antibiotics. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (see Genesis 17:9–14; compare Exodus 12:48). During the first century AD, some individuals had been teaching that Gentile followers of Jesus needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses (see Galatians 6:12–13). The reasoning for this position was that Israel had always been the distinct people of God. It was to Israel that God had revealed himself, given His law, and specified circumcision as the sign of His covenant. This group assumed that if God were making himself known to the nations, then the nations should be circumcised according to the Law of Moses.
- Lesson Context: The Jerusalem Council
The book of Acts was written by Luke. Acts is the second of a two-volume work by Luke addressed to Theophilus (Acts 1:1; see Luke 1:1–4). See the Lesson Context from lessons 1 and 2 regarding details about the author, Luke.
Prior to the events in this lesson, Paul and Barnabas, leaders of the first-century church, had been traveling throughout Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These travels are identified as Paul’s first missionary journey in AD 47–49 (Acts 13:4–14:28). The two visited various synagogues, where they taught from the Scriptures and preached the news of Jesus’ resurrection (example: 13:32–33). They were not selective in choosing their audience; they preached to both Jews and Gentiles (see 14:1).
After their journeys, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch (Acts 14:26–27), a city in modern-day Syria (not to be confused with another Antioch located in Pisidia; see 13:14). Antioch in Syria was located approximately 330 miles north of Jerusalem.
The events of Acts 15:4–29 depict a meeting sometimes called the “Jerusalem Council.” This meeting took place in approximately AD 51. The council was an early attempt to answer the vital question of how to incorporate Gentiles into the people of God. The church’s future depended on how the council answered this question.
- Conflict Described
A. The Belief (vv. 1–2a)
1. And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
Judaea is the southern region of Israel. The area is mountainous; the largest city in the region, Jerusalem, is situated on a mountain top. A traveler came down in elevation when leaving Judaea.
The identity of these certain men is unknown. Their journey from Judaea took them to Antioch in Syria because it was there that Paul and Barnabas were ministering (see Acts 14:23–28). The visit to the believers (the brethren) in Antioch was seemingly unauthorized by the church leaders in Judaea (see 15:24). The visitors’ message was direct: male Gentiles must be circumcised to identify as part of God’s people. Because of this message, these visitors were likely either Jews or Gentile proselytes.
During the time between the Old and New Testaments, circumcision had become a boundary marker for Jewish identity. And the first-century church had not entirely abandoned the practice. For instance, the apostle Paul circumcised Timothy because of the context into which the two were traveling (see Acts 16:1–5). At another time, however, Paul did not require circumcision for his associate (see Galatians 2:3).
The issue at hand was not if Gentiles would be admitted into the people of God. The church had already celebrated God’s work in Gentiles (example: Acts 11:1–18). Even the Old Testament prophets agreed that the incorporation of Gentiles into God’s people would someday occur (examples: Isaiah 14:1; 56:6–7; Zechariah 8:23).
Instead, the issue was the means through which Gentiles entered the community of God’s people. The visitors argued that for Gentiles to be counted as God’s people, they would have to follow the law given to Moses. Their argument went as follows: since God provided the law, then all people—Gentiles included—must keep the law to be saved.
2a. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them.
Paul—previously called “Saul” (Acts 13:9)—was from the tribe of Benjamin (see Romans 11:1). He was educated by a notable rabbi (see Acts 22:3) and trained as a Pharisee (see Philippians 3:4–6). Before meeting Christ, Paul approved of the persecution and killing of members of the first-century church (see Acts 7:59–8:3). After his conversion experience, Paul was accepted as a disciple of Jesus and was allowed to preach in the church (see 9:26–29). Following a season in the city of Tarsus (see 9:30), he returned to Antioch (see 11:25–28).
Barnabas was the first to introduce Paul to the other apostles (see Acts 9:27). The two men had traveled together on a missionary journey throughout Asia Minor (13:4–14:28; see Lesson Context). The two were identified as “apostles” (14:14) and, therefore, leaders in the first-century church.
That Paul and Barnabas expressed dissension and disputation with the visitors and their proclamation is unsurprising. The believers in Antioch had heard of the faith of Gentiles (see Acts 14:26–27). But the interlopers’ message contradicted preaching from Paul and Barnabas regarding justification by faith and the limits of the Law of Moses (see 13:38–39).
B. The Parties (vv. 2b–3)
2b. They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. The decision to send Paul and Barnabas and a certain other of them reflects the respect held for the leaders in Jerusalem. Until this question of circumcision was answered, the believers in Antioch would withhold judgment—and their knives.
The apostles were the surviving members of the Twelve called by Jesus (see Luke 6:12–16; compare Matthew 27:5; Acts 12:1–2). Elders served in additional leadership positions in the church (see Acts 14:23; example: James 5:14). The council is one of the few places in Scripture where these two parties are listed together as church leaders (see Acts 15:4, 6, below; 15:22–23, not in our printed text; 16:4).
What Do You Think?
How should believers discern which doctrines are essential and which are nonessential?
How should believers handle disputes regarding nonessential doctrines?
3. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
Leaving the church in Antioch allowed Paul, Barnabas, and the others to visit churches en route to Jerusalem. The estimated 330 miles between the cities would have taken at least two weeks to travel on foot. Because of the trip’s length, the travelers relied on the hospitality of other believers.
Phenice is the region of coastal plains located north of Galilee. It includes parts of the modern-day countries of Syria and Lebanon. City-states dotted the area in the first century AD, including Tyre (see Acts 21:2–3) and Sidon (see 27:3). Followers of Jesus scattered to this region after the persecution began in Jerusalem (see 11:19).
Further south, bordering the western banks of the Jordan River and extending to the Mediterranean Sea, was the region of Samaria. By the first century AD, Jews did not associate with Samaritans because of the former group’s perceptions regarding the latter group’s ritual cleanliness (see John 4:9). After Pentecost, however, the gospel infiltrated the region (see Acts 8:9–24) and led to the establishment of a growing church (9:31).
As the travelers proceeded through these regions, they proclaimed the news that God had welcomed Gentiles into His people. This welcoming occurred when the Gentiles experienced a circumcision of the heart (see Ezekiel 44:9; compare Romans 2:28–29). Conversion is turning away from evil and toward God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:8–10). The conversion of Gentiles demonstrated that God had kept His promise to Abraham regarding the blessing to “all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
II. Conflict Debated
A. Receiving (v. 4)
4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. The message of Paul and Barnabas to the Jerusalem church focused on the work of God completed with the two of them. They likely reported on the conversion of Jews and Gentiles during their missionary journeys (see Acts 13:1–14:27). Through them, Jesus’ command that His disciples be witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (1:8) was being fulfilled.
What Do You Think?
How will you tell the story of God’s work in your life as an act of encouragement to other believers?
Who will you tell your story to in the upcoming week?
B. Reminding (vv. 5–6)
5. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
The Pharisees were a sect of first-century Judaism. They emphasized careful obedience to the law of Moses and its associated commentary and tradition (see Lesson Context, lesson 1). Their strict adherence to the Law of Moses and its interpretations made it understandable why these certain Christian Pharisees advocated for Gentile circumcision. Although the Gospels present the group as antagonistic toward Jesus (see lessons 1 and 2), some Pharisees (like Paul himself; see Philippians 3:4–11) had believed in Jesus.
6. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. This meeting to discuss the matter of circumcision appears to have been held in private, contrasting the initial church-wide reception of the believers from Antioch (Acts 15:4, above).
What Do You Think?
How should believers discern whether or not to bring in a mediator to help resolve a disagreement?
How would you respond to someone who says that believers should stifle disagreement altogether?
III. Conflict Resolved
- God’s Work (vv. 7–9)
7a. And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them.
Simon Peter was one of the twelve apostles selected by Jesus. As a disciple, he experienced testing of his faith (see Matthew 14:22–32), and he denied having known Jesus (see Luke 22:54–62). However, Jesus reinstated Peter (see John 21:15–23). As a result, Peter became a leading figure in the church, just as Jesus promised (Matthew 16:17–19). The book of Acts describes how Peter led the apostles (Acts 1:15–26), preached the gospel (2:14–41; 8:14–25), and worked miracles (3:1–10; 9:32–35).
7b. Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago, God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
God had chosen Peter to proclaim the gospel message to “the circumcision” (Jews; Galatians 2:7–8) and the Gentiles. It was part of the long-promised plan of God to offer redemption to all people who would believe (see Romans 1:16).
What Do You Think?
How can believers discern God’s call to serve as a cross-cultural missionary?
Digging Deeper In what ways will you serve as a cross-cultural missionary to the various cultures in your neighborhood?
8. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.
At this moment, perhaps Peter remembered his interactions with Cornelius, a Gentile who feared God (see Acts 10:1–2). After experiencing a vision (10:9–16), Peter went to the house of Cornelius and preached the message of Jesus’ anointing and resurrection (see 10:23–43). The crux of Peter’s declaration was that “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (10:34–35). Every person—Jew or Gentile—who believed in Jesus would receive the forgiveness of sins (10:43). As Peter preached to these Gentiles, “the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word” (10:44). This gift was evidence of the Gentiles receiving the gospel message and their responding in faith.
Although Peter preached the gospel, God alone knoweth the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles. The presence of the Holy Ghost in Gentiles served as evidence that their lives had turned toward God. This pouring out of the Spirit was even as God did unto Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost (see Acts 2:1–5). The presence of God’s Spirit on Gentiles gave witness to their inclusion into the people of God (example: 10:44–46; 11:15–18).
What Do You Think?
How will you continue living in a way that reflects the presence of God’s Spirit?
What steps will you take to ensure that you are being attentive to the leading of God’s Spirit?
9. And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Peter clinched his argument: the Gentiles’ reception of God’s Spirit was the sign of their acceptance into God’s people. To God, there was no difference between Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles did not need to become circumcised. Instead, God cleans the hearts of all people who express faith in Christ (see Titus 3:5; Hebrews 10:22).
Faith is not merely a belief in a proposition. Rather, faith expresses trust and allegiance in Jesus as the Messiah and King. Such faith leads to a person being made right with God (see Romans 3:21–25; 5:1; Galatians 2:15–16; 5:4–6). Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit because of their faith in Christ. Through faith, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28; see lesson 9).
Indoor cycling classes are my favorite exercise. My coach motivates the class by setting difficult but attainable goals. While the coach is a professional, she still completes the same exercise as her students. Despite her experience and physical ability, she is held accountable to finish the same workout as the class. During class, we’re all the same.
An adage states that “the ground is level at the cross.” This statement speaks to the equality among believers. Regardless of a believer’s life situation or spiritual history, all believers are part of the “one body” of Christ (see Romans 12:4–5). Do you draw distinctions between yourself and other believers, or do you look for ways to serve that “one body”? Does 1 Corinthians 12 offer any guidance in this regard? —M. E.
B. Our Response (vv. 10–11)
10. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
The tendency of God’s people to tempt … God had occurred in Israel’s past. Such testing highlighted distrust of God and His plans (examples: Exodus 17:1–2; Numbers 14:20–25; Deuteronomy 6:16). Requiring Gentile circumcision amounted to testing God’s will for His people. It was a faulty assumption that God’s gift of the Spirit was mistakenly poured out to the Gentiles (see Acts 11:15–17).
A yoke is a wooden beam that pairs livestock together so they can work efficiently. The imagery of a yoke can have positive connotations, such as the yoke promised by Jesus (see Matthew 11:28–30). In Jewish teaching, the term yoke was used to describe the peoples’ keeping of the Law of Moses. People’s responsibility to the law guided and restrained them. To require law-adherence, especially circumcision, was equivalent to putting the burden of a yoke upon the neck of Gentiles (compare Galatians 5:1).
Neither Jesus (see Matthew 5:17) nor the apostle Paul (see Romans 3:31) desired to abolish the Law of Moses. The law was considered good (see 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8) but inadequate for life and salvation (see Galatians 3:21). Such was not a new development in the first century. Certain limitations had marked the law since it had been received by Israel’s ancestors—their fathers (see Romans 4). If Peter’s peers and ancestors could not bear the requirements of the Law of Moses, why would the Gentiles be expected to do so?
11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
Peter ended with a reminder of the core of the gospel. Salvation comes only through one avenue: by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. No human work, including following the Law of Moses, could save a person (see Acts 13:38–39; Galatians 2:14–17).
As a high school freshman, I suffered my first concussion during an out-of-control game at youth group. As we played, I felt the sharp pain of someone’s knee slamming into my head. Doctors advised me to avoid mental stimulation, which would slow the healing process.
I spent my recovery resting and avoiding basic activities. However, even rest had its limitations! I thought maybe I needed to push through the headaches and get accustomed to the pain. The recovery tested my patience. I wanted to do more to speed up the healing process. However, nothing is what was required of me.
Peter summarized the gospel message: salvation is through grace by faith. There is nothing we can do to better our chances of receiving salvation. We simply have to trust that God will heal our hearts. Do you believe that reality, or do you try to add requirements to God’s gift? —M. E. Visual for Lesson 10. Point to this visual as you discuss the lesson commentary associated with Acts 15:10.
- Seeking Resolution
People try to hide conflict by avoiding or ignoring it altogether. Maintaining a facade of peace regardless of the underlying discord can be a severe failure. Evading problems usually makes the conflict worse. The leaders of the first-century church did not dodge conflict regarding the question of Gentile circumcision. Instead, they resolved the dispute while staying faithful to the gospel. God’s plan for salvation is beyond human expectations. We are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and not through our heritage or achievements!
God of salvation, thank You for showing Your mercy. Help us welcome as we have been welcomed and love as we have been loved. Show us how we can proclaim to others Your plan for salvation. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Celebrate God’s merciful gift of redemption!
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2023-2024 (pp. 229-251). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.